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Disengaged Board Members? – Tolerate it NO More! 8 Steps to Engagement and a “Get it Done!” Culture. Here’s how . . .

Firing a board member

Disengaged Board Members? – Tolerate it NO More!

8 Steps to Engagement and a “Get it Done!” Culture. Here’s how . . .

Let’s be honest

Do you have board members that . . . Blow off meetings? Don’t read meeting materials? Don’t make a personal donation? Are nowhere to be found to help organize events? Can’t recite the mission or vision? Don’t help steward donors? Rarely see your programming? Don’t personally know the staff? Say they’re “just volunteers” or “too busy” to participate? Couldn’t share any institutional knowledge to save their life? Believe that the ED and staff are getting paid so they should do all the work?


Well, if we had the courage, here’s what we’d like to say to the slackers on our boards:


“Your absence and lack of involvement are completely unacceptable and are a liability and disgrace to this board. If you cannot commit to full participation immediately, you need to resign."


"The board’s effectiveness is compromised by inactive members. Your inaction speaks louder than words. Either step up and fulfill your obligations or step aside so we can bring in members who will actively support our mission.”


There is a solution

Nothing is more frustrating to an executive director and engaged board members, and more discouraging to staff, than to have board members who are all talk and no action (lip service passion). Oh, but these folks are quick to pat themselves on the back and brag to all their friends that they are on the board of “this amazing organization,” but in reality, their engagement is as stagnant as algae growing in a shallow pond.


If you can relate to all this, and feel you have no idea how to change the engagement culture of your board and deal with toxic and disengaged board members, there’s hope. The following process will require an investment of time, work, and perseverance, but take it from someone who’s built nine sector-leading nonprofits and worked with hundreds of nonprofit boards . . . if you follow the process below, you will eventually have a board and a board culture that will be active and engaged.


Step 1: Rally some change champions

You cannot do this alone. The first thing you need to do is find as many board members as you can that are as fed up as you about the lack of board engagement, and then work through the following steps together. If you must fly solo, then you should definitely hire outside help (see below).


Making changes to board structure and culture is sure to be met with resistance and a set of stiff arms. If board members have been happily disengaged for years, why would they want to change now? . . . “Life on this board is easy.


Step 2: Build or update your roles and responsibilities document

Your roles and responsibilities document (R&R doc) is the cornerstone document for board engagement. In some cases, boards don’t have this document. In other cases, boards think their “roles and responsibilities” are outlined in their bylaws. Wrong. What’s listed there is a set of required legalese outlining things like board terms, how many board members you can have, generic officer roles, among other things.


Most boards do have some form of a R&R doc. The problem here is that the content of the document is lined with vague statements such as “board members should attend meetings,” “volunteer at events,” and “help raise money.” There is no mention of time and participation requirements. How many meetings? How many events and how much time at each event? What does “help raise money” mean?


So why do most board R&R docs lack specificity? Because many organizations get their R&R documents from the internet. I did a search on Google and the first 15 examples that came up were all vague and lacked specificity. Even the ones from credible institutions like nonprofit associations, community foundations, and national board resource organizations were general and simplistic. Very few included detailed participation requirements and time commitments.


Since you won’t find a high-quality R&R doc on the internet, what do you do? You need to create your own. Start by searching the web or ChatGPT and download four or five that look promising to you—the more specific the better.


Next hold a brainstorming session with your champions. Share copies of the examples you downloaded and the R&R doc you already have (if you have one). As you review each one line-by-line, select the roles, responsibilities, and obligations you feel your board members should be accountable to uphold. Keep asking yourselves, “What specific work do we want board members to do? What specific roles, responsibilities, and obligations do we want them to fulfill?”


The next step is to make a new list from the items you’ve selected and then sort the list into functional areas like fundraising, governance, volunteering, advocacy, programming, finances, etc.


Finally, and this is most important, after you have your final list, go through each item and add specific participation requirements and time commitments wherever possible. You’ll want to make the level of specificity broad enough so you don’t scare board members away by overwhelming them with hundreds of hours of work, but realistic and specific enough that fulfilling the obligations demonstrates a valuable, high-impact commitment to the organization.


For example, “Spend 4 hours a month volunteering for one of our programs.” “Spend a minimum of 10 hours helping organize the annual gala.” “Make 15 thank-you calls after every fundraising event.” “Attend 10 of our 12 monthly board meetings.” “Make 5 invitations to potential donors each year (people, corporations, foundations).” “Each member must not miss two board retreats or strategic planning sessions in a row.”


After refining your list, create a nicely formatted draft of your R&R doc on your stationery. Then get buy-in and sign off from your champions. After this, work with the board chair to hold a board meeting to discuss the document, make changes, and get approval from the entire board. This is the time where you’ll meet resistance, especially if the board chair is part of the problem.


If this is the case, it may be a good time to bring in an outside facilitator who can manage the drama and get consensus so the board can adopt a new R&R doc. After the board approves the document, all board members should be required to sign it.


Once the document is approved and in play, new board members should be thoroughly briefed by the chair, or the onboarding committee, on the content of the R&R doc before being nominated to the board so they fully understand the obligations and expectations of board members.


Step 3: Redefine your board culture to one of engagement

You can have the most detailed R&R doc that’s beautifully formatted on your stationery, but if sits dormant in a dusty folder and is not integral to your board “culture” then it’s no more effective than the paper it’s printed on.


It’s been said that 99 percent of nonprofit boards do not have a defined culture. That’s a problem because if the culture of a board is one of apathy, distrust, and drama then no amount of defined obligations will move people to act on them.


Building a healthy, engaged board culture is an art and few people know how to do it well. Therefore, if you’re in need of building a new culture for your board, you should strongly consider hiring an outside facilitator. A great facilitator, in a board retreat-like setting, will help the board grapple with the fundamental question, “What should it mean to be part of this board?” Does it mean you tell all your friends you’re on this great board, blow off meetings, neglect your fundraising responsibilities, and do nothing?


Or, does it mean, you’re authentically committed to fulfilling the mission and will roll up your sleeves and spend time and do work to take the board to the next level of performance, impact, and engagement by fulfilling your roles and responsibilities so you can help propel the mission and fundraising to the next level of performance and impact?


A facilitator will help the board define a “culture statement,” or something similar, that outlines what guiding beliefs the board should follow, what standards they should uphold, and what behaviors they should model. At the end of the day, the board should walk away with a newly defined ethos that unifies the board and deepens board member engagement and commitment.


Step 4: Integrate the culture

Once a board culture and a set of board roles and responsibilities have been defined and approved, the board will need to write a five- to seven-point outline on how it plans to implement the new culture. This could include things like posting the culture statement on meeting agendas, reminding board members of the importance of their responsibilities at meetings, and keeping a board “scorecard” of where board members stand with regards to fulfilling their obligations.


Step 5. Reflect the culture

All this R&R stuff is theory until board members actually adopt it and reflect the culture through their behaviors and actions. Remember, it’s easier to fold people into a healthy culture than try to change a culture or people, which is why it’s best to define a board culture and detailed roles and responsibilities early on in the lifecycle of a nonprofit.


So how do board members reflect a board culture of work and engagement? They don’t talk, they do! They attend board meetings. They observe programming, offer to support the fundraising efforts of the organization, and they make sacrifices of time to fulfill the commitments outlined in the R&R doc. They shun drama, do work, respect others, and authentically care.


This authentic engagement behavior sends a strong message to staff, donors, and constituents that the board has a culture of engagement with highly active and involved board members.


Step 6. Accountability

No system is perfect. Even when you have a high-functioning, engaged board, you can expect an outlier now and then . . . that rogue member who’s disruptive, defiant, and whose actions don’t reflect the board’s culture.


When these situations arise, most boards and board chairs sit back and rarely say or do anything for fear that the unruly or disengaged board member might cause more drama or resign from the board and tell others what a horrible board the organization has.


But one of the biggest reasons why inaction takes place is that the board chair, or others on the board, are friends or business associates with the board member so they don’t want to “call out” this person. Why? Because everyone knows professional and social circles are small so it’s safer not to offend anyone rather than step on someone’s toes.


Therefore, no matter what the situation, no one really knows what to do . . . though they all wish the member was gone. The solution to this quandary is to take the personal relationship component out of the equation by creating an “Accountability Policy.” This policy outlines a three- or four-step process of what will take place if a board member becomes disruptive, or is not fulfilling their roles and responsibilities. 


For example, after the first offense, the board member might receive an email or phone call from the board chair. After the second offense, the chair might send a letter. After the third offense, the member might have to meet with the chair or one of the board committees.


This way, the chair is only executing what is in the policy, rather than making a personal accusation when a board member is disruptive, fails to show up to meetings, stops volunteering, or is not doing the work outlined in the R&R doc.


If you have a board member who refuses to make change after executing the process outlined in the Accountability Policy, you’ll need to tactfully ask them to resign, or ask them to slide into a different role with less obligations such as an advisory board member, honorary board member, committee member, volunteer, or donor.


For a free copy of an Accountability Policy template, see below.


Step 7: Establish an engagement committee

Whose job should it be to ensure that each board member reads and signs the R&R doc each year, signs up for specific work, tracks board member engagement, and holds members accountable when they fail to fulfill their obligations?


Well, it’s NOT the responsibility of the executive director. Nope. Managing board engagement is a board function. The board chair could do it, but that’s a lot for one person. What most boards do to manage the work of board members is to create an “engagement committee,” or have their executive committee take on the responsibilities.


By having a committee manage and review the board engagement process on a regular basis, it ensures that board members and the board as a whole, are doing the specific work and fulfilling the obligations they signed up for.


Step 8: Create a passion contract

Ok, if you put in place all the documents and systems outlined above, your board will be higher functioning than 95 percent of the boards out there. But there is one more tool to add to your board engagement quiver – it’s called a “Passion Contract.”


What is a passion contract? Think of it as an engagement sign-up form. It’s usually a two- or three-page document that’s completed at the start of each year by every board member and includes a series of questions and checkboxes, asking board members what they like to do to contribute to the organization, and what they’d like to learn to be better board members.


Think of it as like a detailed version of the board application that you give members during the nomination process. Most of the questions are based on things listed in your R&R doc.


For example, let’s say your R&R doc requires board members to commit to 20 hours a year to supporting the fundraising efforts of the organization. Then, in the passion contract, you might list 15 different tasks a member could sign up for to fulfill their fundraising related obligations. You could include checkboxes for things like meeting donors, thanking donors, making introductions, helping with the gala, hosting a salon event, finding sponsors, etc.


The process of having donors fill out a passion contract forces board members to fulfill the obligations set forth in your R&R document, but gives them choices to do that based on their skills, expertise, interests, and time availability.


The responses from the passion contracts are collected and then put into some type of spreadsheet or Google Sheet so everyone’s responses are in one central repository. This helps those who are managing the work of the board (engagement committee members) to have a centralized tool to see and manage what members signed up to do, and to ensure they do it. It can even be used to track hours. Think of it as a collective board engagement scorecard.



As you know, building a board where everyone is engaged and happily fulfills their roles and responsibilities does not happen by flipping a switch, especially when a culture of longtime under-engagement is the prevailing one.


Ah, but there is hope. As painful and frustrating as the process can be, it’s important to take a long-run approach to board engagement, because in the long run, if you have a board culture that sets high expectations of board engagement and action, and that disengagement, under-engagement, and unruly behavior will not be tolerated, then eventually, you will have a set of high-performance board members who will propel the board, organization, and mission to the next level of impact.


Your wits end is my passion

My life’s passion is about building engaged boards and high-performance nonprofits. If you’re at your wit’s end and need help building a culture of engagement, leadership, and work for your board, call me; it would be a privilege to help. Write me.


Would you like a free Accountability Policy template? Write me.

Looking for answers? I'm here to help. Contact me.

First Things First

Tom Iselin



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